By Larry KelleyFor the Bulletin
Jun 18, 2020 at 4:58 PM Jun 18, 2020 at 4:58 PM
The sound of “Play Ball” will finally be heard again for the 2020 baseball season when the Eastern Connecticut Major League amateur circuit stages opening day on June 29 at Groton’s Washington Park.
The COVID-19 pandemic cut short college baseball in March and has since cancelled high school, summer college seasons, American Legion and Little Leagues. While the pandemic has struck out baseball at all levels, the ECML, an organization that has recently struggled from a lack of players and America’s current waning interest in baseball, is figuratively the only game in town for many local collegians looking to play.
John Turner, ECML commissioner, said the league’s collegiate invasion will double its team total from three last year to six this season. The league schedule includes 20 games for each team (all at Washington Park) and playoffs that will commence in late August.
“The pandemic has cancelled summer college leagues and there still is a hunger from these kids to play baseball,” Turner said. “We can guarantee them four games a week at an affordable price. Travis Beausoleil, Mitchell College head coach, has done a great job recruiting college kids into the league. It’s a great opportunity for the college kids and a challenge for older players returning to the league.”
Beausoleil, a former Plainfield standout, and Turner, of Stonington, will each run a team. A Three Rivers College club team, a squad from northeast Connecticut, the Pirates, and veteran squads of players 30-years-old and up, will also field units.
College summer wooden bat leagues have proliferated in recent years to complement the more-established national-college summer leagues such as the Cape Cod and New England Collegiate Baseball Leagues.
“The spawning of college leagues have put the ECML at a disadvantage over the years,” Turner said. “Also, the players who were the mainstays of the leagues also have gotten older and are raising families. There was a time when scouts came to twilight league games. I recall a Red Sox scout asking about [former East Lyme pitcher) Mike Blais in the early ‘90s. He came to Washington Park, watched Mike pitch and that was the last game Blais pitched in our league.”
Turner recalls the formation of the ECML in 1993 when the Norwich City League, Groton league and Westerly Twilight League merged. There was once three area twilight leagues. Last year, there were three teams for adult baseball players.
Dennis Long, former UConn and professional Class AAA pitcher, believes a growing emphasis on summer travel ball and AAU participation have hurt local leagues.
“Kids are so used to ‘traveling’, equating travel with better baseball played,” Long said. “In our area this is not the case. Eastern Connecticut is a baseball rich region but unfortunately the young kids advance through high school and college thinking that playing outside the area is the best option. Not always.”
Long, who is pitching coach of the NECBL’s Mystic Schooners, believes the ECML’s college influx could return local twilight baseball to its past glory years.
“I think it will bring a new feel to local baseball for 2020,” Long said. “So many young college players are hoping to get some action this year. In the past, local city leagues were a regular spot for college players. This would be a return to local baseball of 30 years ago when eager 18 to 22 year olds mixed in with the wise old veterans.”
The ECML is a perfect fit for Bryce Mileski, a 2018 Griswold graduate who was a starting pitcher at UConn Avery-Point before the pandemic cancelled the season after five games in March.
“I was 1-1, pitching pretty well, the team was bonding, then it was over,” Mileski said. “This is an opportunity to get in some innings against good competition. I’m grateful that the league is there.”
Turner hopes some collegians will enjoy the sample of the ECML.
“Hopefully, some will stay with us,” Turner said. “There’s good competition right here without having to travel out of the area.”